No vowels

In the April 13th New Yorker, a Talk of the Town piece “The Musical Life: New Translation” by Alec Wilkinson about Cassandra Wilson:

The title of the Egyptian funerary papyrus “Book of the Dead” is more accurately translated as “Coming Forth by Day.” It was called “Book of the Dead” by Wallis Budge, who translated the manuscript for the British Museum, in 1895. “Coming Forth by Day” is also the title of Cassandra Wilson’s new record, which is an homage to Billie Holiday, who would have turned one hundred on April 7th.

The other morning, Wilson visited the Egyptian wing of the Met, waiting in the security line among schoolchildren on field trips.

… “I’ve been fascinated by Egyptology for ten years,” she said. “Ancient Egypt was called Kmt. Their language didn’t have vowels, much like Hebrew. The Greeks called the people from Kmt the Aegyptos. ‘Kemetic’ is how you refer to the culture. The Kemetics didn’t believe in death. They believed that you were always coming back and forth from the unknown to the actual. Going to the afterlife they referred to as ‘westing,’ since the sun set in the west. For me, the thought of Billie Holiday’s spirit being reinvented in the twenty-first century connected with the concept of returning, of coming forth by day.”

Whoa! The writing system is not the language. The Ancient Egyptian writing system didn’t have symbols for vowels, but the language certainly had them. Every language does.

Drawing of Cassandra Wilson by Tom Bachtell to accompany the New Yorker piece:

About Wilson, from Wikipedia:

Cassandra Wilson (born December 4, 1955) is an American jazz musician, vocalist, songwriter, and producer from Jackson, Mississippi. Described by critic Gary Giddins as “a singer blessed with an unmistakable timbre and attack [who has] expanded the playing field” by incorporating blues, country, and folk music into her work

A little bit about the Egyptian language, from Wikipedia:

Egyptian is the oldest known language of Egypt and a branch of the Afroasiatic language family. The earliest known complete sentence in the Egyptian language has been dated to about 2690 BC, making it one of the oldest recorded languages known, along with Sumerian.

… Egyptian belongs to the Afroasiatic language family. Among the typological features of Egyptian that are typically Afroasiatic are: fusional morphology, consonantal lexical roots, a series of emphatic consonants, a three-vowel system /a i u/, nominal feminine suffix *-at, nominal m-, adjectival *-ī, and characteristic personal verbal affixes. Of the other Afroasiatic branches, Egyptian shows its greatest affinities with Semitic, and to a lesser extent Cushitic.

And, yes, in the hieroglyphic writing system for Egyptian, vowels were not written — though by comparison with other Afroasiatic languages, the likely vowels of many words can be reconstructed.

One Response to “No vowels”

  1. markonsea Says:

    It’s worth mentioning that ‘Kemetic’ is NOT how you refer to the culture of Ancient Egypt. ‘Kemetic’ is how you refer to the mystics and esotericists who see thmselves as adherents of Ancient Egyptian religion.

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